The evolution of Tiger, on and off the course, is making this late part of his career the most compelling
That Tiger Woods won a golf tournament on Monday, tying Sam Snead for the PGA Tour’s all-time victory mark, wasn’t really all that surprising. Remarkable, yes, but not surprising.
Consider the following:
• Gordie Howe had his first 100-point season in the NHL at age 40 with 44 goals and 59 assists, and played until age 51 when he scored 41 points in 80 games for the Hartford Whalers.
• Brett Favre threw for 4,202 yards and 33 touchdowns at age 40, leading the Minnesota Vikings to the NFC Championship.
• Nolan Ryan, who threw seven no-hitters in his career with the first coming in 1973, threw his final one 18 years later, at age 44.
• Michael Jordan had three 40-plus-point games in the middle of his final season in the NBA for the Washington Wizards, shooting over 50 percent in all of them.
Golf is no exception when it comes to great late-career performances, and given how it’s a less taxing physical pursuit that those other sports, it offers more possibilities, too.
There are myriad examples, but a few include Snead’s last victory on tour, which came a couple of months shy of his 53rd birthday in 1965; Jack Nicklaus becoming the Masters’ oldest winner at age 46 in 1986, six years removed from his last major; and Tom Watson nearly winning the Open Championship in 2009 at age 59.
Should anyone really be surprised that Woods, who with his victory on Monday at the Zozo Championship in Japan now has three wins including a major in his last 14 starts on tour, is capable of winning more?
Sure, at a soon-to-be 44 years old and with the competition only getting deeper, the consistency won’t be the same as it was during the prime of his career—Jordan averaged a career-low 20 points during his final season. But the all-time greats are capable of doing great things at any moment in their careers. And Tiger is maybe the greatest all-timer of all-timers, in any sport.
What makes Woods’ latest act so compelling, though, aside from the winning itself, is how he has done it.
The five-year winless drought. The chip yips. Four back surgeries. Five knee surgeries. The real possibility of never playing again. All the off-the-course drama. With all that, Tiger hasn’t just come out the other end, he has transformed from the game’s most dominant figure to its most resilient.
“To be able to go through all that to get to where I'm at now, I'm very appreciative,” Woods said following his latest victory. “I know how it feels to have this game, you know, what I felt like taken away from me, where I couldn't participate in the way that I wanted to. I’m just so happy and so fortunate to be able to have this opportunity again.”
Through it all, Woods has continued to evolve and mature. He is different at 43 than 23 or even 33—aren’t we all?—and it shows. In his press conferences, in his interaction with the fans, in places where the cameras don’t go, in his relationships with his peers. He’s smiling and hugging and winning.
Woods is reinventing his game along the way, too, the same way Jordan did late in his basketball career when he developed an array of back-to-the basket moves. Woods no longer has a swing coach. He’s owning where he’s at, in life and on the golf course.
At the Zozo, Tiger hit 65 percent of his fairways for the week. Accuracy over power, with fluid movement through the ball in the form of a smooth, flat swing that sees him transitioning toward his left side with ease.
And in case anyone forgot, Woods reminded that he has always been an impeccable ball-striker, obliterating the par 3s in Japan to the tune of nine under for the week, a career-best. Think about that for a moment, 43 and still achieving career-bests.
“Physically, I can’t do any of the things I used to do,” Woods said. “I don’t hit the ball anywhere near as far. … [But] I can still manage my way around a golf course. I know how to play and I was able do that this week.”
And for a lot of weeks still to come.
How many? Who knows, which is why we should savor these performances for as long as we can, the way Woods seems to be doing, because they are every bit if not more compelling than anything he did for the first 20 years of his career.